In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Communism fell with it. Liberal democracy seemed triumphant. Democracies sprouted in Central Europe. Apartheid fell in South Africa. The Oslo process seemed to herald peace in the Middle East.
Then it all went bad. Tribalism and authoritarianism are now on the march while the number of democracies declines. Far worse has been the degradation of democracies, especially in our own country. The Congress barely functions. We have a president who ignores facts and violates basic decency. On college campuses, according to a Brookings/UCLA survey, 50 percent of students believe that “offensive” speech should be shouted down and 20 percent believe it should be violently crushed.
In short, we used to have a certain framework of decency within which we held our debates, and somehow we’ve lost our framework. We took our liberal democratic values for granted for so long, we’ve forgotten how to defend them. We have become democrats by habit and no longer defend our system with a fervent faith.
So over the next few months I’m going to use this column, from time to time, to go back to first principles, to go over the canon of liberal democracy — the thinkers who explained our system and why it is great.
I’m going to start with Thomas Mann’s “The Coming Victory of Democracy.” Mann, possibly the greatest novelist of his era, fled the Nazis and came to America. In 1938, he gave a series of lectures against fascism, Communism and the America Firsters.
Democracy begins with one great truth, he argued: the infinite dignity of individual men and women. Man is made in God’s image. Unlike other animals, humans are morally responsible. Yes, humans do beastly things — Mann had just escaped the Nazis — but humans are the only creatures who can understand and seek justice, freedom and truth. This trinity “is a complex of an indivisible kind, freighted with spirituality and elementary dynamic force.”
“Man is nature’s fall from grace, only it is not a fall, but just as positively an elevation as conscience is higher than innocence,” he writes. Original sin “is the deep feeling of man as a spiritual being for his natural infirmities and limitations, above which he raises himself through spirit.”
Democracy, Mann continues, is the only system built on respect for the infinite dignity of each individual man and woman, on each person’s moral striving for freedom, justice and truth. It would be a great error to think of and teach democracy as a procedural or political system, or as the principle of majority rule.
It is a “spiritual and moral possession.” It is not just rules; it is a way of life. It encourages everybody to make the best of their capacities — holds that we have a moral responsibility to do so. It encourages the artist to seek beauty, the neighbor to seek community, the psychologist to seek perception, the scientist to seek truth.
Monarchies produce great paintings, but democracy teaches citizens to put their art into action, to take their creative impulses and build a world around them. “Democracy is thought; but it is thought related to life and action.” Democratic citizens are not just dreaming; they are thinkers who sit on the town council. He quotes the philosopher Bergson’s dictum: “Act as men of thought, think as men of action.”
In his day, as in ours, democracy had enemies and the prospects could look grim. Mann argued that the enemies of democracy aren’t just fascists with guns. They are anybody who willfully degrades the public square — the propagandists and demagogues. “They despise the masses … while they make themselves the mouthpiece of vulgar opinion.” They offer bread and circuses, tweets and insults, but have nothing but a “rabbit horizon” — all they see is the grubby striving for money and power and attention.
The authoritarians and the demagogues subjugate action through bullying and they subjugate thought by arousing mob psychology. “This is the contempt of pure reason, the denial and violation of truth in favor of power and the interests of the state, the appeal to the lower instincts, to so-called ‘feeling,’ the release of stupidity and evil from the discipline of reason and intelligence.”
They possess the “kind of contempt which strives with all its might to degrade and corrupt humanity in order to force the people to do its will.”
Mann has confidence in democracy’s ultimate victory because he has confidence in democracy’s ability to renew itself, to “put aside the habit of taking itself for granted.”
Renewal means reform. He calls for economic and political reform that, quoting a French deputy, “will create a true hierarchy of values, put money in the service of production, production in the service of humanity, and humanity itself in the service of an ideal which gives meaning to life.”
Mann’s great contribution is to remind us that democracy is not just about politics; it’s about the individual’s daily struggle to be better and nobler and to resist the cheap and the superficial. Democrats like Mann hold up a lofty image of human flourishing. They inspire a great yearning to live up to it.